Over the past decade, the portion of the U.S. population professing to be Christian has fallen by 12%, with the vast majority of the drop off occurring among protestant congregations. The steady secularization has coincided with wave after wave of scandals involving sexual abuse and institutional corruption in the church. While the waves occurred initially and notoriously in the Catholic Church, in recent years, multiple prominent protestant churches and institutions have been laid low by similar outrages.
We should consider the ways in which the disarray of democracy and Christianity in the U.S. might be mutually reinforcing. David Campbell, a political scientist at Notre Dame and a leading scholar of religion in American public life, recently summarized his research on this connection:“In the United States, religion and partisan politics have become increasingly intertwined. The rising level of religious disaffiliation is a backlash to the religious right: many Americans are abandoning religion because they see it as an extension of politics with which they disagree. Politics is also shaping many Americans’ religious views. There has been a stunning change in the percentage of religious believers who, prior to Donald Trump’s presidential candidacy, overwhelmingly objected to immoral private behavior by politicians but now dismiss it as irrelevant to their ability to act ethically in their public role. The politicization of religion not only contributes to greater political polarization, it diminishes the ability of religious leaders to speak prophetically on important public issues.”Rather than backing off, many Christian pastors and church members on the Evangelical right are doubling down on their devotion to Donald Trump and syncretic forms of Christian nationalism.
The challenges are not limited to the religious right. While progressives in aggregate are increasingly secular, the unstinting demands for justice made by some on the left bear the hallmarks of excessive if quasi-religious zeal. This point came up in a fascinating panel I recently listened to among three progressive faith leaders, all of whom happened to be people of color. They acknowledged, rather ruefully, that in some causes and coalitions in which they have led, participants have come to see certain secular voices and texts as sacred. They have established orthodoxies, often conveyed via complex jargon known to the initiated, which are heretical to question. However, on the left as on the right, movements focused more on rooting out heretics than in engaging potential converts are harder pressed to grow and sustain their influence over time.